Julio Gonzalez will never forget the day he met Roberto Clemente. “I was in first grade. My father invited me to attend a baseball clinic in Catalina,” Gonzales recalled 45 years later, ahead of the home opener. “And he told me [Roberto] Clemente was going to give a baseball clinic to the students.”
“I had an expectation that I was going to learn baseball that day, but it was impossible because Clemente was like a human magnet.”
Gonzalez sat in the dugout, watching as fans swarmed the longtime Pirate.
“Two weeks after that, at 9:25 in the morning, I saw a great sadness in the city,” Gonzalez recalled. “Breaking news coming up on the TV and I asked my mother what happened because all of the people were extremely quiet on the streets. My father told me, ‘Clemente died,’ and I didn’t believe that.”
Gonzalez has been a Pirates fan since, owning a wide collection of Bucs apparel that his buddy, Brennan Kraje raves about.
“This guy’s a nut,” Kraje said. “He got a new car, and within a week, he’s got two stickers on the back window of the old Pirates logo and the new Pirates logo.”
Gonzalez made the four-hour trip to Pittsburgh with Kraje, whom he met three years ago. The two are statisticians in the Baltimore area and bonded over their love of the Bucs.
Kraje got his masters degree at Carnegie Mellon. After attending the Orioles’ opening day, Gonzalez and Kraje made it a point to come out for Pittsburgh’s first home stand.
“It’s spitting snow,” Kraje said. “What a wonderful day for opening day.”
Working on a holiday? No problem, say Pirates’ staff
Even if the weather wasn’t ideal, Harry Michelson enjoyed every minute of his new job: giving schedules to fans walking around PNC Park.
Michelson, who recently returned to the Pittsburgh area after spending 20 years in Harrisburg, worked his first game today as a member of the team’s guest relations staff.
“It’s a holiday,” Michelson said. “Just coming out here, it’s a tradition for a lot of people. Bad weather, good weather: You come out and take in the game. A lot of people are going to show up regardless. It’s something you can lean on. It’s a tradition.”
— Mark Fischer (@nhlfisch21) April 7, 2017
Having grown up a Pirates fan, Michelson said he’s soaking in the experience of working for his hometown club.
“Working for the Pirates, it’s fantastic,” Michelson said. “I never thought I’d have an opportunity like this but moving out here gave me the chance.”
Another member of guest relations working her first game didn’t want her name made public — she took the day off from her day job to take part in the festivities.
“I’ve always wanted to work an opening day,” she said. “So I called in sick.”
98 years young
Phil Coyne has been an usher for the Pittsburgh Pirates since he was 18-years-old. He turns 99 in two weeks but worked the team’s home opener today in 30-degree weather.
Good seats available
The 2017 Pirates are back in Pittsburgh, even if all their fans aren’t.
Frigid conditions seem to have kept fans away from the home opener, though optimism for ending the Bucs’ 38-year World Series drought remains high.
“Let’s Go, Bucs! World Series Champs!” screamed one beer vendor in the main concourse of PNC Park.
It’s good to be optimistic — even if the cold kept beer sales down.
“Terrible,” another vendor said, when asked, though he wasn’t sure if it was his cooler of Pabst Blue Ribbon that also contributed to fans passing him by.
The action’s picked up at PNC Park. On the field and otherwise.
Andrew McCutchen’s RBI single brought home the game’s first run in the bottom of the third inning.
Meanwhile, moments before, a pair of hardcore Pirates fans, Cliff Paul and Andy Eisenbarth, stood shirtless in the persistent cold and chugged beers in left field, near the outfield scoreboard.
— Cameron Hart (@Cameron_Hart_) April 7, 2017
McCutchen’s hit to bring home Starling Marte came seconds after an angry Bucs fan in the upper deck shouted at the outfielder, “McCutchen, you’re a bum.” Why? Who knows?
Snow fell more steadily in the top of the fourth, sweeping across the field but an usher calmly predicted the two teams would play on. He was right.
The Pirates added another run in the bottom half of the inning to put Pittsburgh ahead, though Atlanta got one back in the fifth.
“It’s too cold to get people riled up,” said a member of the fan group Renegades of the Rotunda. “But we’re getting there.”
More signs of baseball: Pierogi races and home runs
Run, Pierogi! Run!
Jalapeño Hannah took the first Great Pierogi Race of the season, as Pizza Penny made her debut as the second female mascot.
— Mark Fischer (@nhlfisch21) April 7, 2017
— Vincent Lungaro (@VinceLungaro) April 7, 2017
One father wished the offensive surge came a little earlier.
“Why couldn’t we do that last inning, when we had the bases loaded,” he said as he gave his son a high-five.
Can’t always have your cake and eat it, too. Speaking of sweets, one Dippin’ Dots vendor said sales were on normal pace, despite the harsh wind and cold temperatures. His take on Pirates fans? “They’re nuts.”
Art Astringer is a member of Renegades Rotunda, baseball fanatics who have been preparing for every home game since 2014 by dressing up like pirates.
“Home opener day is like Christmas to us,” Astringer said.
Cold hands, full hearts, can’t lose
After Christine Michalik of Beaver County caught a few Pirates games in Florida during spring training, she made it a point to attend the Bucs’ first game at PNC Park. She was treated to another fun afternoon Friday, as the Pirates topped the Braves, 5-4.
“I enjoyed my home opener experience, even though the weather was bad,” she said.
Following a two-game sweep at the hands of Boston to open up the season for Pittsburgh, Michalik was confident that Friday better represented how the Pirates will fare this year.
“This can be a good kickstart to their season,” Michalik said. “A lot of positive things to take away from today.”
The thousands of fans who stuck it out to the end, perhaps a little less than half of the stadium, wasted no time flocking to local bars to celebrate the Bucs’ win.
Back-to-back homers from Freese and Cervelli in the bottom of the fifth were enough to push the Pirates past Atlanta in the first game of the series.
Pirates starter Ivan Nova pitched six innings, allowing just one run on six hits. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte also collected an RBI each to help make the day a happy one for Bucs fans.
Ahead by four runs entering the eighth, it looked as though Pittsburgh was cruising to a victory, but Atlanta made it interesting by scoring three runs in the top half of the inning.
Then, with the tying run on first and one out, the Braves’ Adonis Garcia sent a ground ball destined for the outfield, before a diving Josh Harrsion got a hold of it.
From his knees, Harrison flipped the ball over to Jordy Mercey who stepped on second base, then fired it over to first in time to nail Garcia.
Bang. An inning-ending double play to bring Atlanta’s rally to a halt.
Closer Tony Watson took over on the mound for Pittsburgh in the ninth, and after hitting the first batter to put the tying run aboard, retired the side.
One down, 80 home games left. Let’s hope the others are warmer.
~ written by Vincent Lungaro & Mark Fischer
A version of this story was first published during the Pirate’s home opener on The Incline on April 7, 2017
~ April 23, 2017